Robert Gehrke: Here’s the good, the bad and the in-between from Utah’s 2020 legislative session

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) The Utah Legislature wrapped up their 45-day 2020 session on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

There are highs and lows in any 45-day legislative session, both in legislators’ actions and the bills they pass, and there are many that invariably don’t get the attention they deserve. So I figured I would use this space to recap some of the best and worst — and in between — of the 2020 legislative session.

The good

Woman power • It’s hard to overstate the seismic impact felt when all six female senators — Republicans and Democrats — walked out of a vote on, in my opinion, the worst bill of the session. The bill would have required an ultrasound before a woman gets an abortion, by choice or the result of a miscarriage.

Robert Gehrke

In a particularly “Handmaid’s Tale” flourish, it would allow the woman to “avert her eyes.” The female senators spoke passionately against it, managed to pass an amendment that made it slightly less horrible, but when the vote came, spoke in unison and spontaneously walked out. And they were heard.

“We should value their input,” Herbert said on the final night of the session. “There’s nobody that understands birth more than a woman.”

When the bill went back to the House for a final vote, House members refused and it died at the end of the session. In nearly two decades covering the Legislature, I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I was proud to show my daughter what powerful women who aren’t afraid to stand up — and walk out, if need be — can accomplish.

Mental health • This year the Legislature made big strides in mental health legislation — bills that will save Utahns’ lives. Rep. Steve Eliason and Sen. Daniel Thatcher got bills passed that will create mobile response teams to deal with mental health crises, particularly in rural Utah. It would establish crisis centers where people in need of intervention can go without having to be hospitalized.

The Legislature also funded new beds to alleviate crowding at the Utah State Hospital. Both are important steps to deal with a treatment crisis and curb Utah’s high suicide rate.

Justice reform • The decriminalization of polygamy got a lot of headlines — and it was a good move — but it was just one of several positive steps on the justice reform front.

Despite opposition from the attorney general, the Legislature passed HB324, by Rep. Marsha Judkins, allowing the creation of “conviction integrity units,” a panel of experts to review past convictions for possible errors or misconduct and potentially seek to have a conviction overturned or launch a new trial.

The Legislature passed HB206, sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, ending a bail system that results in low-income people spending time in jail, while wealthier people can bail out.

Sen. Todd Weiler (who co-sponsored the previous two bills) sponsored SB162, which allows students with criminal records to qualify for scholarships. And HB288, by Rep. Marsha Judkins, requires the collection of data on prosecutors to provide transparency and accountability on how their offices operate.

End of straight-ticket voting • It passed with just a few minutes left in the session, but the Legislature finally got rid of the arcane practice of straight-ticket voting — letting people check one box and vote for all the candidates of one party. In the 2018 election, more than 340,000 Utahns cast a straight-ticket ballot. It’s lazy and cheapens elections.

Utah’s not the only state moving away from it. Texas, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Indiana have all eliminated it in the past few years. If Herbert signs the bill, six states will still use the practice.

The bad

No day for ERA • The early part of the session featured a lot of self-congratulatory kudos for Utah becoming the first state to let women vote. But all the attention to women’s equality was just lip-service and the treatment of one measure in particular — the proposed ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution — proves it.

Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored the measure, which would have Utah join 38 other states that have ratified the constitutional amendment, first proposed in 1972. Utah’s Constitution has already assures equal rights to women and the world hasn’t stopped spinning.

Every day, there were women in the lobby of the Capitol holding signs urging lawmakers to pass the bill, but Kwan’s proposal didn’t even get a committee hearing.

Lack of privacy • There were two good bills this session dealing with personal privacy, neither of which got far. Rep. Craig Hall sponsored a bill to limit when law enforcement can access an individual’s DNA information from something like a genealogy service. It didn’t get a hearing. And Sen. Curt Bramble had a bill limiting the use of facial recognition software, which also never saw the light of day. The one bright spot is that the Legislature declined to give the Utah Attorney General’s Office millions of dollars for Big Brother-ish data surveillance company Banjo.

The in between

Affordable housing • Last year Sen. Jake Anderegg wanted $24 million to address Utah’s affordable housing shortage — estimated to be as high as 55,000 units — and got absolutely nothing. This year, based on the recommendations of a task force, he wanted $35 million.

When tax reform imploded, it was clear that wasn’t realistic. But he did get $10 million, which he thinks could benefit as many as 2,500 families. The only reason I didn’t list this in the “Good” category is that it left out money that was meant to help the families of poor and homeless students get into stable situations where they can thrive. It should’ve been an easy one that could have paid huge long-term dividends.

Education funding • In the last week of the session, legislative leaders rolled out a massive revision to the way public schools are funded. It’s complicated, but in a nutshell, schools would be trading near-term funding increases for assurances they won’t face cuts in an economic downturn. School boards and even the Utah Education Association have endorsed it in concept. There is some merit to it, but I still have concerns about pitting programs for disabled individuals against education and the long-term impacts of the new plan.

Wine by mail • Utah is one of the last states to prohibit wine orders — like your wine-of-the-month club. With the backing of Silicon Slopes companies, Rep. Mike McKell and Sen. Gene Davis got HB157 passed, which aimed at changing that. But of course liquor is never that simple. Instead of having wine delivered to your home, you have to subscribe through the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and have it delivered to a liquor store.

And the state will impose the same 88% markup it puts on other wine and liquor. Plus they’ll add a service fee. So a bottle of wine that retails for $25 could end up costing you double that, meaning you really have to want it and really not care about the price.

On a related note, the Legislature didn’t act to increase the number of bar licenses available, even though there is currently a waiting list to get one and before the session the chairman of the state liquor commission suggested the Legislature should address the problem.